Botched Execution Renews Death Penalty Debate

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  • McALESTER, Okla. (AP) — A botched execution that used a new drug combination left an Oklahoma inmate writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney Tuesday, leading prison officials to halt the proceedings before the inmate’s eventual death from a heart attack.

    Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of the state’s new three-drug lethal injection combination was administered. Three minutes later, though, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.

    The blinds were eventually lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official eventually called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, the Department of Corrections said.

    “It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched,” said Lockett’s attorney, David Autry.

    The apparent failure of the execution is likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution’s requirement they be a neither cruel nor unusual punishment. That question has drawn renewed attention from defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months, as several states scrambled to find new sources of execution drugs because drugmakers that oppose capital punishment — many based in Europe — have stopped selling to prisons and corrections departments.

    Several states have gone to court to shield the identities of the new sources of their execution drugs. Missouri and Texas, like Oklahoma, have both refused to reveal their sources, but both of those states have since successfully carried out executions with their new supplies.

    Tuesday was the first time Oklahoma used the drug midazolam as the first element in its execution drug combination. Other states have used it before; Florida administers 500 milligrams of midazolam as part of its three-drug combination. Oklahoma used 100 milligrams of that drug.

    “They should have anticipated possible problems with an untried execution protocol,” Autry said. “Obviously the whole thing was gummed up and botched from beginning to end. Halting the execution obviously did Lockett no good.”

    Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a 14-day stay of execution for an inmate who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett, Charles Warner. She also ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to conduct a “full review of Oklahoma’s execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening’s execution.”

    Robert Patton, the department’s director, halted Lockett’s execution about 20 minutes after the first drug was administered. He later said there had been vein failure.

    The execution began at 6:23 p.m., when officials began administering the first drug, the sedative midazolam. A doctor declared Lockett to be unconscious at 6:33 p.m.

    Once an inmate is declared unconscious, the state’s execution protocol calls for the second drug, a paralytic, to be administered. The third drug in the protocol is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Patton said the second and third drugs were being administered when a problem was noticed and it’s unclear how much of the drugs made it into the inmate’s system.

    Lockett began writhing at 6:36. At 6:39, a doctor lifted the sheet that was covering the inmate to examine the injection site.

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